The New Press Edition
By Alice Walker
I like to tell this story because it sounds unlikely. There we were, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar and I, on a plane from Tamale to Accra, in Ghana, West Africa. We had boarded this plane because there was no other, and the alternative to flying to the Capitol was a seven hour drive over so rough a road that on our way to Tamale by car a few days earlier we experienced every imaginable discomfort. We had arrived at our destination faint from heat and hunger and covered in red dust.
The plane was an old army transport, painted in brown and dull green camouflage; Pratibha mentioned on entering that it seemed to be made of tin. Inside the plane there were no seats. We found places on the floor for our parcels and her various cameras, and found ourselves surrounded by other adults who had also impassively entered the plane, attached to their children, their chickens and their goats. Actually the feeling of being a village flying through the air was quite restful.
What struck us as the plane took off, however, was that it had no windows. Rather, there were window holes but no panes of glass or plastic in them, just strips of rubber; we immediately stuck our hands right through. We also soon noticed that the plane didn’t fly very high, cruising after climbing just a few hundred feet above the treetops.
We didn’t dare look toward the front of the plane to locate the pilot, whom we could hear joking with someone behind him. I think we prayed. As the plane lumbered along we looked each other in the eyes. One of us said: Well, here we are. This may well be our last flight together. Or separately, the other no doubt replied. Is it worth it? Yes, said the other, for we are on the Mother’s business; if we stand She supports us and however we fall She will catch us. We then turned our attention to our neighbors, exchanging greetings and smiles and passing out the polaroids Pratibha took, and almonds, while accepting bananas and groundnuts. It was a short flight.
No doubt the presence of groundnuts reminded Pratibha of an earlier time she and I had traveled to Africa on the Mother’s business, some years before when we were making our film, Warrior Marks, Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. Then too we had had a memorable experience. Traveling by van from The Gambia to Senegal on a road so treacherous most vehicles chose to bump alongside it rather than on it, we had come upon a huge lorry that had been piled impossibly high with groundnuts and had overturned. Pratibha could not believe my glee – not that the lorry had overturned; thankfully no one was hurt – but to see so many groundnuts. For me, it was peanut heaven to sit and lie beside a veritable mountain of these nuts that I have adored since I was a child.
Now, a half decade later, we were returning from a meeting of Female Genital Mutilation abolitionists that was held in the tiny, dusty, town of Bolgatanga, Ghana, a gathering attended by women and men dedicated to the eradication of the millennia old practice in many African countries and cultures of genital cutting of female children and young women. It had been three days of intense testimony, much sadness, anger, weeping. Understanding. Pratibha and I had been among the weepers several times during the gathering, because it was overwhelming to see that so many Africans, from many and diverse places, had come to discuss ending something that so deeply scarred and undermined the health and well being of the continent of Africa itself. We cried at everything, really. The anger of the young woman whose parents had thrown her out for refusing to be cut: holding her child in her arms, she challenged her parents and all parents to have the courage to support their daughters’ right to be whole. The sorrow of our best friend at the gathering, a tall, thin, gentle Ghanaian man, head of the local Amnesty International, whose story of being facially cut as a child pierced our hearts. The regal, beautifully dressed woman, a judge, from Mali, who spoke eloquently of her daughters’ mutilation under the traditionalist eyes of her mother, their grandmother, while the judge was away from home. The awakened look on the faces of all who attended was well worth the journey to get there. To our great relief and happiness, we were welcomed and embraced by almost everyone. After Pratibha screened our film, there was the joyous feeling of being on a journey together, and sharing with the women in the film the certainty that, though probably not in our lifetimes, we will, through our descendents, see the end of it.
I was just twenty when I learned, overheard something, about female genital mutilation, while helping to build a school (out of sisal stalks, all that these very poor, dispossessed-by-British-colonialists people had) for children near Thikka, Kenya. I was then too young and ignorant of patriarchal control of women even to grasp what I had heard. Besides, what was there to be cut off? And why? It would be another twenty-odd years before I felt empowered, by study, travel, conversations with mutilated women, years of being an editor at Ms. Magazine, the feminist magazine that dared to encourage public discussion about FGM by occasionally publishing pieces that protested it, to begin the work that, in all honesty, felt like it was mine to do from the start. Even in that moment of overhearing “something” about the practice of cutting young girls. Why me? If not because such information would catch my ear, snag my imagination, and never leave me, not once, in all those years? I believe in such gifts.
And so, with the blessings of my Africans-in-America ancestors in the form of the massive bestseller, The Color Purple, and after writing The Temple of My Familiar – a long, loving, thank-you novel to said ancestors – I wrote the book that began the journey toward my seat on the floor of the Ghanaian plane, Possessing the Secret of Joy. I would have written this novel in any case, but what a delight to have enough money, space, and time to give it my complete attention. I did not have to teach or do speaking engagements – as I had done while writing The Color Purple. I did not have to worry about heating bills or car notes. Or school fees. Whether to buy winter boots this year or wait. Could I afford new glasses? It was heaven to feel the support of the women and men in this novel as they gathered themselves into flesh that walked around on the page after living for so long as shadows and tortured spirits in my consciousness.
The world is teaching us every day more of earth’s hard realities; it seems that part of my mission is to encourage a closer look. Many who read this novel will not be prepared for the world that it exposes. I understand. I recall my own innocence at the age of twenty, with nowhere to put information about previously unheard-of violence against women that
so shocked me. However, for those who wish to feel with the people who are immersed in the suffering through and occasional triumph over female genital cutting, this book is a good place to start, if only to criticize my approach, which has been done by some readers, and which – understanding an instinctive need many feel to protect the people of Africa, battered for so long by misrepresentation and disdain – I accept without resentment. I have done the best that I could with a challenging subject; perhaps my writer’s shortcomings might be viewed against the magnitude of the calamity.
After writing Possessing the Secret of Joy, I asked Pratibha to make a film with me about the practice. Warrior Marks became a vigorous and fruitful adventure, as did our touring of it over several countries in Africa and Europe, and also in England, Japan, Cuba, and the United States. We talked ourselves hoarse on the subject in city after city for a couple of years. Going into my tenth year of giving the campaign against female genital cutting virtually all of my activist energy, I realized I needed to retreat. During the trial in Paris of a Gambian woman whose infant daughter bled to death after being cut by a “circumciser” she met in the park, the ongoing, increasingly global nature of the struggle impressed itself upon me. It wasn’t as simple as burn-out; it was a deep recognition that, as with many of the planet’s urgent crises, it will take all of us working together to turn things around. It was also extremely draining to find that I, rather than the eradication of FGM, was becoming the subject of many people’s discourse. Years after I wrote and published Possessing the Secret of Joy there were those who claimed I made the whole FGM thing up, and protests met me at more than one college campus where I was accused of maligning Africa and men (and women of African descent). There were those who assumed I sought control of the subject and jealously guarded their “turf” as the discussion/debate became in some places. Two doctors whom I was later told had performed female genital cutting procedures in the US were some of my most persistent critics. One of them sent me a photograph of a child whose incision had healed to show me how smoothly and “cleanly” it was done.
Although I have removed myself from the FGM arena in recent years, the reader will sense that all of my love remains with the characters in this novel, just as all of it moved forward to embrace characters to come. The everlasting elasticity of love is what makes creativity possible, I have found. Pratibha and I have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to interest a major American filmmaker in making a film based on the novel. We are convinced it could halt the practice of genital cutting in many places, in cities in the West and in Africa, for example, overnight. Such is the power of cinema in people’s lives, especially in the lives of people who do not read. We will continue to hold the belief that this collaborative venture is possible, and when it arises we will be ready for it.
What does it mean to possess the secret of joy? Where is the secret to be found? Where must we search for it? Looking back on my life I see moments when the secret of joy became plain to me and I began to dance its dance. In Possessing the Secret of Joy I pass this on. Human beings do terrible things to each other, yet we are healers, too. In the midst of my darkest ruminations about a practice that affects over a hundred million women and girls, with more becoming its victim every day, I leaned on the wisdom and grace of many a psychiatrist and psychologist. One of them, Dr. Carl Jung, entered the novel as Mzee, “the old man,” who tenderly begins to guide Tashi, the character who was mutilated (lover and later wife of Adam, in The Color Purple) back to mental health. My favorite thought most days about the suffering of our planet is that some of us, many of us, recognize the perilous journey we are on and its unexpectedly thrilling allies and joys, and we are preparing ourselves, of necessity, to withstand many a shock, as we continue on our way.
Temple Jook House
Copyright © Alice Walker 2008